New York City Mayor's Rent-charging Plan Threatens Equal Access for Students

New York City's new mayor Bill de Blasio has been making headlines recently with his plans to roll back city support for students who attend the city's public charter schools. In doing so, Mayor de Blasio is sending exactly the wrong message to a key segment of public school students and parents who are just as deserving of public school facilities as those in district-run schools.

Let's be clear: charter schools are public schools. They are tuition-free. Charters don't require admissions tests, and many are now pursuing innovative solutions that would increase access for students with special needs. Students attending charters are public school students who, like district school students, deserve a space in public buildings. However, while charter schools receive local funding for operations, they do not get school building funding for facilities, the way traditional public schools do.

To support access to public resources in New York City, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg allowed charters to share unused space with district schools. Today, 114 of the city's 183 charters are sharing space with district schools across the city. Mayor de Blasio has announced his intention to put a moratorium on new co-locations and suggested he might take the enormously disruptive step of rescinding existing co-locations. He also wants to start charging charter schools rent, a move that would hurt more than 70,000 students currently enrolled in city charter schools. Having to reallocate funds to cover rent could force some charters to shut down, and will almost certainly slash important programs to enable charter schools to keep roofs over their kids' heads.

The rent-charging plan could reverse 12 years of incredible progress and support for expanding strong public school options in New York City and pressure other cities and states around the country to follow a similar destructive path. When Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, there were only 17 charters in the city. Now, thanks to his efforts and incredible support for education reform, there are 183, with nearly 50,000 kids on waiting lists to get into charters. Test results clearly show that charters play a valuable role in New York City and are giving parents more choices. The New York City Charter School Center found that 79 percent of charter schools had higher proficiency in math and 54 percent had higher proficiency in reading than their district school counterparts.

The positive effects of space-sharing extend beyond charter school students who enjoy equal access to facilities; the practice is also good for students in district schools, especially in cases where district and charter schools share the same buildings. Consolidating schools maximizes use and efficiency. A great model for how this is working is in Newark, where the SPARK Academy charter school's co-location with George Washington Carver Elementary School represents a true partnership in space as well as resources.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City grew to be a model for other charter school systems. He had a bold vision of public charter schools and district schools working together to ensure all kids had access to a high-quality education. That's the approach other cities and states should follow. State and local policies should ensure that all public school students - whether they attend a district school or a charter school - have fair access to available public school facilities.

De Blasio's plan represents a serious step backward in efforts to ensure fair access to a high-quality public education for all. He is sending a hostile message to charter school students and their parents that they don't deserve the same access to public resources as other public school students in the city. This message could set a dangerous precedent for charter school students throughout the U.S.

When charter schools and district public schools work together, it's good for all students. Without this kind of collaboration, school choice inevitably suffers. Co-location measures like those modeled in New York City free up resources, reduce operational costs and offer more options for families. Mayor de Blasio's plan will only serve to drive a bigger wedge between New York's district and charter schools, potentially slashing choice for thousands of families. We can only hope he'll come to see the devastating potential of this policy change before it's too late.

Mashea Ashton is the chief executive officer of the Newark Charter School Fund. She holds a master's degree in special education from The College of William & Mary, and taught in several failing school districts before becoming a full-time advocate for comprehensive education reform.